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  1. At the center of the universe is a horribly wounded angel.
  2.  
  3. Its wings are torn and blackened, its skin plastered with a dull purple
  4. blood that never seems to grow totally dry. It is disfigured, mangled,
  5. covered in seared, faintly glowing cracks. The face is fixed in an
  6. eternal, unchanging expression of pure, limitless joy. The eyes are empty
  7. sockets. The arms are eternally outstretched, because they are tied in
  8. place.
  9.  
  10.  
  11. It is nothing anyone would call conscious, and is only in the barest,
  12. barest sense of the word still alive. If anything resembling awareness
  13. remains, that awareness consists of nothing but an infinite field of
  14. gridded black and white squares, a test pattern scattered with dancing
  15. dots that shift and jump and blur into one another. It would be tempting
  16. to say this is consciousness, but in fact the angel is not aware of the
  17. test pattern. It simply is.
  18.  
  19.  
  20. This test pattern is useful.
  21.  
  22. ------------------------------------------------------------------------
  23.  
  24. Records as to the details that begin this story are not available, and it
  25. is clear they have been made that way on purpose. What knowledge can be
  26. gained-- and it is available to precious, precious few-- consists mostly
  27. of assumptions. The assumption is that angels exist. The assumption is
  28. that they are, in fact, perfect, or a reflection or aspect or agent of
  29. some perfect higher being. The assumption is that from time to time,
  30. perhaps as their sole function, these angels are sent out on missions, to
  31. perform the will of their creator. The most immediate assumption one comes
  32. to is that whatever such tasks could conceivably be, it is possible for
  33. them to fail.
  34.  
  35. The one certainty is that at some point, some ship in the employ of the
  36. Altran Corporation-- possibly a pathfinder, possibly a minor delivery ship
  37. of some sort, possibly an aggressor, possibly merely a communications
  38. satellite identifying a piece of space junk coming within a certain
  39. radius-- came into contact with an actual, real, unquestionable angel,
  40. floating in the dead, frozen vacuum of deep space. The assumption is that
  41. the angel had been sent up against something very, very dangerous. The
  42. assumption is that the angel had emerged victorious, as something that
  43. powerful would certainly have threatened humanity if left unchecked. The
  44. certainty is that the angel never made it back.
  45.  
  46.  
  47. After the point at which the angel was retrieved, by whatever means this
  48. was done, records began to be kept. Engineers at the greatest level of
  49. confidence within Altran were secretly summoned to a highly guarded
  50. location, to experiment on what had been found. And they did. Extensively.
  51. The initial results held no particular meaning. The flesh was in fact
  52. definitely alive, and was in fact definitely not any known sort of
  53. organism, but could not be induced to heal, react, or do anything
  54. interesting. What was left retained the power to hold itself together, but
  55. little more, and crumbled under pressure. Volumes of data were produced
  56. during this process. By and large, this data was never used.
  57.  
  58.  
  59. In the end the only thing that could be induced to any activity whatsoever
  60. was the brain, the last thing to be worked on in detail. And there the
  61. last remaining spark of autistic half-life in the creature was found. The
  62. engineers carefully cut apart the crushed skull and plowed and cajoled
  63. their way in at the molecular level with wires and sensors and probes,
  64. pushing past layer upon layer of brain matter that all were black and
  65. decayed and clearly dead and liquified upon being disturbed, and took
  66. exquisite care to preserve perfectly anything that proved an exception.
  67. And in the end, when finally a clear outline of what bits were still
  68. living had been formed-- a solid and almost warm block at what in a human
  69. would have been the reptilian core, a few island-like clumps of living
  70. matter scattered throughout, and microscopic chains of neurons that
  71. branched off in a number of directions from that center linking it all--
  72. the engineers connected wires everywhere that wires could be connected to
  73. and sent out a single universal gentle, quiet electric pulse, an attempt,
  74. in their way, to say hello.
  75.  
  76.  
  77. And the angel sent a pulse back.
  78.  
  79.  
  80. There was to be no communication. Too much of the brain was dead; the
  81. angel was already gone. The engineers found they could send information in
  82. certain ways and the brain would react, but the reaction was more
  83. mechanical than it was thought. Merely stimulus and response.
  84.  
  85.  
  86. With time, and through processes too complex to even begin to attempt to
  87. explain here, the engineers formed a clear map of all of the angel's mind
  88. that was left. Some fragments of problem solving, memory, visualization
  89. remained. They could not get it to answer direct questions. What they did
  90. discover was that it perhaps had not utterly died, but merely in some way
  91. regressed. They discovered they could get it to respond; discovered they
  92. could not harness the mechanics directly, but they could interact with it.
  93. They could compose a simulacrum of thoughts and get real thoughts back.
  94. The thoughts they could use to interact in this way were extremely simple,
  95. and the level of interaction was roughly that one might have with a
  96. mentally impaired child one is taking care of.
  97.  
  98.  
  99. And in a small bit of sweet, strange childlikeness, the most complicated
  100. thing they were able to get what remained of the angel's mind to do, after
  101. year after year of attempts, was play the old Japanese game of Go. They
  102. could form thoughts which coaxed into being in what remained of the
  103. angel's imagination a Go board, coaxed into what remained of its
  104. understanding the rules. They could form thoughts that described their
  105. moves. The angel, with the distant and inexplicable glow that remained at
  106. the center of its skull, moved in return. That was all.
  107.  
  108.  
  109. The angel remains there still, eyes empty, its half-open smile of
  110. unconditional love still uncollapsed, its burnt and blackened in places
  111. but otherwise still almost glowing golden hair still trying to escape out
  112. in a wizened mane, pushing out the back of the equipment, intertwined with
  113. the hundreds or millions of metal pipes and wires, some visible, some not,
  114. that quietly encase all that remains of the angel's brain and flow out,
  115. back, spiraling off in thousands of different directions to the layer upon
  116. layer of machinery that entomb the angel on every side. The outpost in
  117. which all this is kept does not have a name, because it is not spoken of.
  118. It is too great a secret.
  119.  
  120.  
  121. One of the problems with computing, despite paradigm shifts and
  122. advancements over time that one supposes must be literally beyond the
  123. imagining of those who worked on the art in its early days, is that there
  124. are certain problems that never get any easier. These problems, the
  125. so-called NP-hard, drive computer scientists batty because they are so
  126. universal, so basic, and yet still so inaccessible. They occur essentially
  127. every time there is a large system of decisions in which every decision
  128. effects the outcome of every other. Perhaps the most basic version of an
  129. NP-hard problem is this: You have a series of arbitrary locations
  130. connected by a series of arbitrary roads, and each road takes a specific
  131. known amount of time to traverse. You want to know what would be the
  132. quickest route that visits every location on your list. On a small scale,
  133. perhaps a map on a piece of paper, this is something a human mind can
  134. figure out with a fair degree of ease. Computer scientists are not
  135. interested in small scales. Most of them, especially these days, are
  136. interested in only one thing: as the scale becomes larger, how much harder
  137. does the problem become?
  138.  
  139.  
  140. And the problem with the NP-hard questions is that their complexity
  141. increases exponentially; the amount of time it takes to solve such a
  142. problem doubles, or more, with each added decision. We can readily handle
  143. this doubling up to a point, but then we quickly reach something where our
  144. ability to compute appears more and more futile with each added simple
  145. step. Since this issue first appeared some very surprising methods of
  146. dealing with this kind of problem, and some very surprising and ingenious
  147. specialized devices, have been created, but still, at a certain scale, the
  148. difficulty of that simple traveling salesman problem-- when applied to the
  149. question of, say, how to effectively route all the messages within a
  150. galaxy-wide telecommunications network-- becomes daunting. When it comes
  151. to something like modeling the gravitational interactions of the particles
  152. within a decent-sized quasar, it reaches the point where one begins to use
  153. words like "impossibility" and seriously mean it. Advances in technology
  154. since the day of the transistor have not helped the problem one bit. All
  155. that we have been able to do is take the the point at which the problem
  156. becomes unbearable and push it back a relatively infinitesimal amount;
  157. past that point there is still nothing that can be done. It is like the
  158. old proverb of the man who invented Chess, and when asked by the Emperor
  159. what gift he wanted, he asked for one grain of rice for the first square,
  160. two grains of rice for the second, four grains of rice for the third; we
  161. can fulfill a decent portion of the chessboard easily, but just to fill
  162. that last square we could convert every molecule in the universe to
  163. silicon and have each crunch numbers until they all break, and still be
  164. nowhere near to solving one of a number of problems that scientists would
  165. like the answer to today.
  166.  
  167.  
  168. Here is the truly maddening thing about the NP-hard problems: if someone,
  169. anyone, could find one really ingenious way of solving an NP-hard
  170. problem-- any of them-- where the difficulty with scale became more
  171. complicated just polynomially, rather than exponentially, then they could
  172. all be solved that way. (One of the oldest unanswered questions in
  173. computer science is whether such a thing is possible.) That is to say,
  174. every class of NP-hard questions corresponds perfectly with every other
  175. class of NP-hard questions, in a sort of shadowy, behind-the-mathematics
  176. sort of way, and you can mechanically translate between any two relatively
  177. easily. Solve one, it happens, and you've solved them all.
  178.  
  179.  
  180. This is not an exact description of what happened. It is, however,
  181. something very similar. The essence is this: there exist homomorphisms by
  182. which any decision can be described perfectly as a scenario in Go.
  183.  
  184.  
  185. With the size of civilized space, and the extreme density of the various
  186. markets contained therein, running a fair-sized business venture has
  187. become a very difficult thing. There are so many things happening on every
  188. side, so many things to keep track of, so many different ways to move, and
  189. each interacts in so many, tiny, hard to remember ways. It is much like
  190. Go, but there is many, many times more information, and many, many times
  191. more decisions to make, than could be made even to fit within the 3361
  192. possible configurations of a 19x19 board. It is more than can be kept
  193. within the mind of a single human. It is often more than can be
  194. coordinated within a single organization without the difficulty of
  195. effective communication between the disparate points making everything
  196. break down. When you get into the question of running something like one
  197. of the corporations the size of Altran, an entity so large, varied and
  198. powerful that there are places where it can hardly be described as
  199. anything other than a nation-state, efficient decisionmaking begins to
  200. seem so complex one can begin to use words like "impossible" and mean it.
  201.  
  202.  
  203. But here is the thing: while decisions of these scales are beyond our
  204. ability to solve well by any knowledge or art or technology we possess, we
  205. do begin to find that we have the technology to, with great effectiveness,
  206. describe the context for these decisions down to the minutest detail. We
  207. can master the question. We just have no way to move forward into an
  208. answer. But while we cannot answer such questions ourselves, we can
  209. rephrase them, analyze them shallowly, shuffle observations around on
  210. paper. And one of the things we can rephrase them as is Go.
  211.  
  212.  
  213. And so there is a mindless, childlike angel at the heart of the galaxy
  214. that eternally, joyfully, plays an endless game of Go. The damage to its
  215. physical form has made its mind simple, simplified more than we-- not
  216. knowing what that mind was capable of when it was at its full abilities--
  217. can imagine. But it remains an angel's mind. Simplified though it is, it
  218. is still infinite. It is still perfect. And it plays the perfect game of
  219. Go. It is beyond the rules of our universe, beyond the boundaries of
  220. finiteness, beyond the NP-complete requirement that some things just get
  221. exponentially harder as they get more complicated. And in its mind, still
  222. unblemished somehow, is an infinite Go board, in which a number of dancing
  223. white stones larger than one can even really imagine are day in and day
  224. out besieged by black stones carefully placed into the angel's mind by a
  225. truly staggering volume of computer equipment. And through this
  226. unimaginable amount of space, day in, day out (a mammoth frothing tangle
  227. of white and black in a seemingly infinite glob at the center, an almost
  228. countless number of tiny islands of war scattered out throughout infinity,
  229. and for each a real or potential quiet chain of go attacks stretching out
  230. toward infinity to connect them all) the white stones are always winning.
  231. The placers of the black stones do not mind, as this is by their design.
  232. Their intent within the game is not to win. The black stones are being
  233. placed by a massive computer network whose purpose is known only to
  234. precious few, a network that gathers every single decision, every bit of
  235. information, every scenario, every question facing the Altran corporation
  236. at that moment in time, laboriously converts the entire state of the
  237. universe from the perspective of Altran into configurations of stones on
  238. the Go board, and laboriously translates the angel's move back into the
  239. answer, the move, the best possible strategic decision for that moment in
  240. time. These homomorphisms are quite nasty, and abstraction is limited.
  241. Describing a set of decisions that varied and that large into something as
  242. simple as stone patterns within Go is not simple, and the amount of board
  243. space required to describe the system compounds upon itself with each
  244. added question that is a part of it. That does not matter. There is room.
  245.  
  246.  
  247. The staggering success of the Altran Corporation has been a surprise to
  248. very many, and it has been attributed to a number of things. The most
  249. common belief is that their success is due to the complex, baffling, and
  250. shifting set of unethical or semiethical anticompetitive tactics that they
  251. undertake on a constant basis. This is partially right, but the tactics
  252. are only a tool. The real reason for Altran's success is simply and
  253. literally this: that at each moment, in every way, for its goals, Altran
  254. makes literally the best possible decision it could make given the
  255. information available to it.
  256.  
  257.  
  258. There is one thing that leads me to believe the Altran Corporation's
  259. success will not be limitless. It is that despite all the technology,
  260. despite its perfect decisions, the ability of Altran to gather an accurate
  261. portrait of the information describing its universe, and the ability of
  262. Altran to model that information in an accurate way, is still imperfect
  263. and human. The knowledge of this fact comprises my one and sole remaining
  264. fragment of hope.
  265.  
  266. -mmc (off Kuro5hin.org)
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